Jan 3, 2023 - Science

Private human spaceflight's future hangs on looming regulation

Illustration of an astronaut with luggage

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A ban on regulating private rockets is set to expire this year, opening up human spaceflight companies to safety regulations for those flying on their systems — and defining the future of the industry.

Why it matters: The human spaceflight industry is growing, and while revenue is still relatively small, it's the most visible part of the space economy and the most influential for the public's understanding of space.

  • Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are currently sending private citizens to space, and Boeing will potentially enter human operations this year.
  • An accident for any of the operators could be disastrous for courting customers.
  • "It is very unsatisfying to just wait for an accident. There is no guarantee that a regulation or a standard can save somebody... but it builds a foundation," Josef Koller of the Aerospace Corporation tells Axios. "Safety is in the interest of all. It should not be a proprietary thing."

What's happening: The "learning period" banning the Federal Aviation Administration from enacting regulations to protect the safety of private people flying to orbit or the edge of space absent an extreme, unplanned event like serious injury or death is set to expire in October.

  • If Congress allows the moratorium on regulation to expire, the human spaceflight industry will be opened up to new regulations to protect the safety of people carried to space on their rockets.
  • “The FAA is taking action now to develop a safety framework if the moratorium expires," the FAA's Kelvin Coleman tells Axios via email.
  • "The safety framework should not stifle industry technology development but encourage innovation while guarding the safety of the crew, government astronauts, and space flight participant as well as the uninvolved public," the FAA wrote in a draft report to Congress released last year.
  • The FAA also plans to create a transition plan that will move the industry toward regulation instead of enacting all regulations at once.

The big picture: The space industry's future is often compared to the aviation industry, with the potential for hundreds or even thousands of people to travel to orbit or the edge of space each year.

  • Some experts say human spaceflight has now reached a tipping point where establishing a regulatory framework is necessary.

"We still have a lot more to learn," George Nield, the former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, tells Axios.

  • "But I think we're at a point now where it's appropriate to think about transitioning to an updated, commercial human spaceflight regulatory framework that would be more appropriate for commercial space going forward," he adds.
  • If a high-profile accident does happen before regulations can be put in place, it's likely Congress, the White House and the public will call on the government to enact new regulations quickly.
  • But "rushed regulations are not going to be good regulations. That's not how we want to do this," Nield says.

Where it stands: Right now, the industry functions under "informed consent" — companies responsible for operating the space system have to tell those who fly with them about the possible risks ahead of flight.

  • The FAA is only able to regulate the space systems for the safety of the public — people on the ground in the vicinity of the rocket when it flies.
  • The current moratorium has been extended multiple times since its establishment in 2004 to allow companies to develop their technology without the interference of potentially burdensome regulations. It's not clear if it will be extended again.

Between the lines: The types of safety regulations established by the FAA are going to be closely watched by the industry.

  • Prescriptive regulations — like forcing companies to install a certain type of button or lever over safety concerns — could impact the design, function and operability of a spacecraft.
  • However, if the FAA takes a lighter touch to regulation and focuses on already established industry rules, limiting possible human errors and creating standards for company culture around safety, experts say regulations could help support the growing industry.
  • "If we continue to insist that everything has to stay exactly the way it is today, then it's always going to be risky ... and that's not what we want," Nield says.

What to watch: Congress will need to decide whether to continue the moratorium or allow it to expire in October.

  • Even if the learning period does end, it could take years to create and begin enforcing rules.
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